Five Fortunes (Gutcheon)

Five Fortunes 
Beth Gutcheon, 1998
416 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780060929954

Witty, wise, and hope-filled, Five Fortunes is a large-hearted tale of five vivid and unforgettable women who know where they've been but have no idea where they're going.

A lively octogenarian, a private investigator, a mother and daughter with an unresolved past, and a recently widowed politician's wife share little else except a thirst for new dreams, but after a week at the luxurious health spa known as "Fat Chance" their lives will be intertwined in ways they couldn't have imagined.

At a place where doctors, lawyers, spoiled housewives, movie stars, and captains of industry are stripped of the social markers that keep them from really seeing one another, unexpected friendships emerge, reminding us of the close links between the rich and the poor, fortune and misfortune, and the magic of chance. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—March 18, 1945
Where—Sewickley, Pennsylvania, USA
Education—B.A., Harvard University
Currently—New York, NY

Beth Gutcheon grew up in western Pennsylvania. She attended the Sewickley Academy, Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut, and Harvard College, where she took an honors B.A. in English literature. She has spent most of her adult life in New York City, except for sojourns in San Francisco and on the coast of Maine.

In 1978, she wrote the narration for a feature-length documentary on the Kirov ballet school, The Children of Theatre Street, which was nominated for an Academy Award, and she has made her living as a full-time storyteller (novels and occasional screenplays) since then. Gutcheon's novels have been translated into 14 languages (if you count the pirated Chinese edition of Still Missing), plus large-print and audio formats. Still Missing was made into a feature film called Without a Trace and was also published in a Reader's Digest Condensed version, which particularly pleased the author's mother. (From the author's website.)

From a 2005 Barnes and Noble interview:

"When my second novel was in manuscript, a subsidiary rights guy at my publisher secretly sent a copy of it to a friend who was working in Hollywood with the producer Stanley Jaffe, who had made Goodbye Columbus, The Bad News Bears, and Kramer v. Kramer, run Paramount Pictures before he was 30, and met the queen of England. My agent had an auction set up for the film rights of Still Missing for the following Friday, with some very heavy-hitter producers and such, which was exciting enough. Two days before the auction, Stanley Jaffe walked into my agent's office in New York and said,

"I want to make a pre-emptive bid for Beth Gutcheon's novel."
"But you haven't read it," says Wendy.
"Nevertheless," says Stanley.
"There's an auction set up. It'll cost a lot to call it off," says Wendy.
"I understand that," says Stanley.
Wendy named a number.
Stanley said, "Done," or words to that effect.

To this day, remembering Wendy's next phone call to me causes me something resembling a heart attack. When, several weeks later, Stanley called and asked me if I had an interest in writing the screenplay of the movie that became Without a Trace, I said, ‘No.' He quite rightly hung up on me.

I then spent twenty minutes in a quiet room wondering what I had done. A man with a shelf full of Oscars, on cozy terms with Lizzie Windsor, had just offered me film school for one, all expenses paid by Twentieth Century Fox. He knew I didn't know how to write screenplays. He wasn't offering to hire me because he wanted to see me fail. Who cares that all I ever wanted to see on my tombstone was ‘She Wrote a Good Book?' The chance to learn something new that was both hard and really interesting was not resistible. I spent the rest of the weekend tracking him from airport to airport until I could get him back on the phone. (This was before we all had cell phones.)

I was sitting in my bleak office on a wet gray day, on which my newly teenaged son had shaved his head and I had just realized I'd lost my American Express card, when the phone rang. "Is this Beth Gutcheon?" asked a voice that made my hair stand on end. I said it was. ‘This is Paul Newman,' said the voice.

It was, too. The fine Italian hand of Stanley Jaffe again, he'd recommended me to work on a script Paul was developing. Paul invited me to dinner to talk about it. My son said, "For heaven's sake, Mother, don't be early and don't be tall." I was both. We did end up writing a script together; it was eventually made for television with Christine Lahti, and fabulous Terry O'Quinn in the Paul Newman part, called The Good Fight."

• I read all the time. My husband claims I take baths instead of showers because I can't figure out how to read in the shower, and he's right.

• I started buying poetry for the first time since college after 9/11, but wasn't reading it until a friend mentioned that she and her husband read poetry in the morning before they have breakfast. She is right — a pot of tea and a quiet table in morning sunlight is exactly the right time for poetry. I read the New York Times Book Review in the bath and on subways because it is light and foldable. I listen to audiobooks through earphones while I take my constitutionals or do housework. I read physical books for a couple of hours every night after everyone else is in bed—usually two books alternately, one novel and one biography or book of letters.

• I have a dog named Daisy Buchanan. She ran for president last fall; her slogan was ‘No Wavering, No Flip-flopping, No pants.' She doesn't know yet that she didn't win, so if you meet her, please don't tell her.

• When I was in high school I invented, by knitting one, a double-wide sweater with two turtlenecks for my brother and his girlfriend. It was called a Tweter and was even manufactured in college colors for a year or two. There was a double-paged color spread in Life magazine of models wearing Tweters and posing with the Jets football team. My proudest moment was the Charles Addams cartoon that ran in The New Yorker that year. It showed a Tweter in a store window, while outside, gazing at it in wonder, was a man with two heads.

When asked what book most influenced her life as a writer, here is her answer:

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Dickens often manages to be both dramatic and funny, while telling a thundering great story, but in Great Expectations, in spite of the unforgettable gargoyles like Miss Havisham and charming Wemmick with his Aged P, it's a very human story about the difference between how things look and how they really are. When Pip recognizes how he has fooled himself, and what he must accept about reality, you see that while Dickens has been amusing you with any number of major and minor melody lines that all seemed to be tripping along by themselves, he has in fact been in perfect control, building up to a major chord, every note right and every instrument contributing at just the right moment. I understood that to make a novel pay off like that, you have to know from the get-go what story you are telling, how it ends, what it means, and exactly what you want the reader to feel and know when it's over. It was the book that made me start thinking like a writer, not just as a passionate reader, about how stories are made. (From Barnes and Noble.)

Book Reviews
Beth Gutcheon's novel about the enduring friendships within a group of women may depict interesting lives, but it is not, in the end, very interesting as fiction.
Betsy Groban - New York Times Book Review

Gutcheon's style is clean, literate, funny and mostly unsentimental. She brings to mind Armistead Maupin in the wry understatement of her prose, her broad canvas and the intelligence with which she attacks substantial issues. I was unable to put Five Fortunes down.
Washington Post

Friends, lovers, adulterers, a fortune-teller and even a murderer are objects of gently sardonic fun in Gutcheon's stylish new comedy (after "Saying Grace") about five women who meet at The Cloisters, a posh $4000-a-week health spa in Arizona. Octogenarian Rae Strouse, a former fan-dancer and now a wealthy San Francisco matron, returns for her 22nd visit. A birthday gift for outsized (six feet and 180 lbs.) L.A. PI Carter Bond allows her a week in the hallowed hot tubs. Amy Burrows and her obese teenage daughter, Jill, come tangled in dirty laundry from their privileged Manhattan life, while anomalous, athletic Idahoan Laurie Lopez comes to grieve over the death of her husband, a politician and once a tennis star. "Fat Chance" is an apt nickname for this temple of rejuvenation: most of the guests haven't a prayer of living up to the example of their enthusiastic, neon-clad fitness instructors, one of whom is so thin "her body looked like a collection of bicycle parts." At the end of their frog march through the fat farm's regimen, the women meet in secret with a mysterious palm-reading masseuse, whose predictions will follow them long after they have completed their tour of duty at The Cloisters; by then, we are as caught up in this fast-paced story as these women are in each other's lives.
Publishers Weekly

The importance of connections between women is highlighted in this story of friendship and support among a group of five women who first meet on a week-long retreat at a health spa in Arizona.... The friends discover that through finding ways to support one another, each is able to move toward healing and growth in her own life. Gutcheon is the author of four previous novels and the Academy Award-nominated film script, The Children of Theatre Street. —Grace Fill

Gutcheon, veteran chronicler of the moneyed but miserable set (Saying Grace, 1995, etc.), takes five women and turns the friendship they make at a spa into an upbeat tale of love, redemption, and purpose helped along by money and powerful contacts. The five women, all with problems or heartaches, meet at the Cloisters, a fashionable health resort in the Arizona desert where the rich and famous come to lose weight, stop smoking, or relax. The women include chipper octogenarian Rae Strouse, who has lots of bucks but whose husband Albie, at home in the family manse in San Francisco, is failing fast. Lonely college student Jill, who looks like a blimp since she started eating as a way of coping with being raped in Central Park, is there with mother Amy, a woman who, the resident palm reader suggests, has rare abilities and will soon remarry, a bit of a surprise, since she is currently married to Noah, a New York surgeon. Lanky Carter Bond, divorced and a Los Angeles private investigator, wants to stop smoking, and Laura Lopez, a judge, mother of five, and recent widow, just wants to grieve. Inevitably, the women are drawn to one another, and once they leave the spa keep in touch. In the year that follows, Jill, who experienced an affirming epiphany, loses weight, deals with another attack, and makes new friends; Rae, heartbroken after Albie dies, finds a new purpose in life when she starts building a housing project; a drug bust that went wrong brings not only baby Flora into Carter's life but also former husband Jerry; Laura, back home in Idaho, runs for the Senate, at her friends' urging; and, when Amy sees Noah with another woman, she moves out and focuses her considerable talents on running Laura's campaign. An unpretentious tale of friendship among the well-heeled that is both a page-turner and day-brightener.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. Five Fortunes begins and ends at a health spa. Why was this particular setting chosen? How does it bring out the essence of each character?

2. Of the five central characters, Jill is the only person who is under 40, and arguably, she has the most complicated inner life. Which experiences in Jill's life account for this? What does the nature of Jill's friendship with other women say about the relationships forged in middle age as opposed to friendships forged inthe years of early youth?

3. The Taoist tale of the Tiger that Jill, Carter, and Laurie hear in T'ai Chi is a cautionary tale which says that any act, no matter how well meant, could have an unforeseen harmful consequence, and any horrible event may bring some good with it. We can't know the ultimate effect of our actions, and we can't necessarily tell the difference between good and evil when we're looking right at it. All we can do is remember that everything we do matters, and will have consequences for ourselves and others. Which events in this novel support the assumption?

4. In the year we follow them, each character grows in different ways. Is there any one who grows more than the others? If so, which one?

5. One of the undercurrent themes in Five Fortunes is that acts of generosity have impact on both the givers and the receivers. If the ability to give wisely and well is one of life's greatest luxuries, then Albie Strouse is a truly rich man, but what has made him so? What if we ask the same question about Eloise?

6. MacDuff is an ambiguous figure, but his presence seems to embody important themes in the book. How does his story comment on the Tale of the Tiger? How about Walter's story about the man who won the Hero medal? What is the author saying about giving and receiving? About who is saved, and how?

7. Five Fortunes explores the overlapping cycles of a woman's life. What are some of these cycles? How do Rae, Carter, Amy, Jill, and Laura personify each one?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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